Categories: Crisis management / Media issues / Political spin / Trust and reputations

22 May 2009


Restoring trust in Parliament and MPs: PR proposal

I’m thinking of pitching for the PR business of restoring trust in British politics, its MPs and its Parliament. Somebody’s got to do it. In the spirit of transparency, here’s my first draft of a pitch.

The problem with Parliament has not been too much power badly used, but too little power, too little debate and too much government reliance on the media as the focus of policy-making. In the process MPs, politicians and political parties have seemingly lost the trust of the electorate.

So, here’s my ten remarks on how to restore trust in MPs and Parliament after the latest PR fiasco over expenses:

1. Restore the central role of Parliament, MPs and debate

Since (and arguably before) Tony Blair was elected, Parliament has been bypassed by the Executive as a vehicle of debate and policy-making in favour of reliance on the media. This has left MPs as an inward-looking bunch of jobsworths with little self-pride and little sense of their role in shaping outcomes.

Today’s The Times counterintuitively calls for more politics not less as part of the solution to the current crisis, in its editorial The Political Manifesto. In the words of Roy Hattersley: “Part of the House of Commons’ problem is the idea that political ideas no longer matter. In truth, the person is less important than the policy. We need more ideologically committed MPs, not fewer.”

There’s a case to be made that the 1997 intake was not of the highest calibre, which reflected the diminished expectations of their role (more on this later).

Anyway, we now need a heroic effort by the parties, the Government of the day and MPs themselves to reassert the role of individual MPs as the representative of their constituencies mandated to decide for themselves how to balance their own views and their own conscience, and the interests of the country, their party and their constituencies.

2. MPs have to recognize that the media no longer play traditional roles.

The lesson of the furore over MPs’ expenses is that traditional media are both in decline and more influential than ever. In their struggle to maintain circulation in the face of the internet the media are no longer predictable or reliable. Hence, The Daily Telegraph has become the class enemy of Tory Toffs and grandees.

In response, Parliamentary PRs must stop playing footsie under the table with the media at the expense of Parliamentary debate. Otherwise, they will continue to see their masters kicked again and again. This requires Parliamentary PRs and party advisers to find new ways, including the internet, and to return to old ones based on discussion in the House and then cascading interactively to the masses, to communicate their masters’ messages effectively. But the best way is for politicians to do what they are paid for – act politically and lead and harass government and each other.

Sure, the media will remain important, but their importance needs to diminish.

3. Make expenses transparent by creating a modern open administration to manage the allocation process and auditing.

There is a good case to be made for increasing MPs’ salaries substantially and let them spend it as grandly and as frivolously as they like.

4. Pomp & circumstance still stand for something.

Tradition is worth protecting not for its own sake, but because it symbolizes hard won rights and historic compromises; such as the opening of Parliament ceremony surrounding the Queen’s speech. Anyway, Parliament remains supreme. Its rights and democratic freedoms still need defending from outside interference, as in the Damian Green case, for instance.

5. Stop groveling and raise your chins.

There’s nothing wrong with saying sorry. But there is something pathetic about what Ann Widdecombe described as the competition between the political parties to prove that “My shirt is hairier than yours”. Such a show just reinforces the message that MPs are guilty and not to be trusted. The trick is to say sorry calmly, redefine the debate and move on quickly.

6. Being loved is not what Parliament is about  – it’s respect that’s vital.

It would be a tragedy for Parliamentary democracy to try to swap respect for love and or popularity. Respect starts with self-respect, which our MPs have shown precious little of recently.

The maintenance of respect requires a little distance, reserve and sense of elitism – based on earned merit – on the part of the respected. There’s nothing wrong with calibrated arrogance in its rightful place; in fact it is a must-have.

Leadership and unpopularity go hand in hand. In the words of my friend and social commentator Richard D North, “the public have always loved hating Parliament and it means next to nothing that they are now hyperventilating about it.”

For instance, the public is for hanging and Parliament against. However it is not Parliament’s job to be led by the mob’s opinion, but to lead us in the right direction based on reasoned argument.

7. Call an early election to rejuvenate Parliament with fresh faces and a new mandate.

New Labour is exhausted. David Cameron is right to call for an early election to clear the air, reset the agenda and re-establish the authority of Parliament and politicians. An election would focus the debate on the future. It would highlight what needs doing to overcome the current economic, social and political mess we’re in. It would also offer an early opportunity to kick out dead wood MPs. Instead, in should come a better crop of MPs than what The Times describes as the low quality ones that have recently populated the House. But Norman Tebbit was right to tell the BBC Today programme that the election shouldn’t happen too soon. He argued that constituencies need the summer to decide for themselves what to make of their sitting MP: back him or sack him (or her)?

8. Launch an education programme about the role of Parliament, MPs and the electorate.

There is too little understanding in society of the various roles of Parliament, MPs and the electorate. MPs need to renew their contract with the masses; the masses need to understand the role they play, too.

Moreover, while PR gurus such David Brain are right to point out the following, the trends identified need resisting in one sense and fixing in another. Mr Brain says:

We are entering an age where traditional deference is dying off and people no longer believe that respect can be merely attributed because people have ‘status’ or ‘power’ or ‘position’. Today, respect has to be earned and re-earned if people’s default position of scepticism is to be overcome.

There is still a role for elitism based on merit and tradition. Scepticism and cynicism can be overcome to the extent required for the functioning of a healthy democracy. There is, indeed, no reason to give in to the trends the internet encourages. There is every reason to believe that a balance can be struck between the old and the new sentiments if we intervene consciously (confidently) to make it so. That’s where education and communication of the renewal of the contract between MPs and society comes in.

9. MPs need to be more dignified in Parliament.

David Cameron was right to want to end Punch & Judy politics. He admits he has failed to do so, but he should not give up on what was a noble aim.

10. End of spin – tell it straight and cut the crap.

This crisis may lead to MPs who are cowed and humiliated and turned into local ombudsmen for every tinpot failing of local and national bureaucracies. It ought to end with MPs calmly and boldly reminding the nation of their real role. The nation will believe them when it sees rugged behaviour by MPs. As usual, it’s the reality which will earn our attention and it will trump the present media withchunt.

So I fear my pitch would end lamely. I’d have to say: “You don’t need PR. You need to grow a couple.”

9 responses to “Restoring trust in Parliament and MPs: PR proposal”

  1. david brain says:

    Well written piece. I really like the idea of an educational campaign. I guess we just take for granted that people know how Parliament works and it’s history. I wonder how much of that is covered in existing school curriculum. Either way, you are right that the instatution needs now to raise understanding and that it should probably do that directly itself. But who would issue this brief?

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  3. tim says:

    Nice piece, well balanced and ultimately correct, paticularly agree with ‘cut the crap’
    I’m interested to know your timescale and budget for this task?!

  4. Ellee says:

    I know only too well how influential new media is – just look at Guido v Derek Draper and smeargate. Only it was totally the mainstream media which revolutionised politics today and threatens to bring down the government. I believe a general election and a total vote of confidence by the electorate in their representatives is essential to start the healing and restorative process. It will take many years for trust to be restored because it has to be earned.

  5. Kelly Brown says:

    Great post! I’ll subscribe right now wth my feedreader software!

  6. colin byrne says:

    Great post Paul and thanks for your comment on my blog and the links to your own posts. will read with interest. Best, Colin

  7. Alan_Brighty says:

    Hi Paul. Sorry to come late to this debate. I’m just catching up after some extended travel. Why has Parliament lost the trust and respect of the people? In my opinion it boils down to two points: loss of sovereignty and the breaking of the social contract.
    Almost 250 years ago, Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his book The Social Contract reflected on the best way to set up a political community. Like John Locke and Thomas Hobbes before him, Rousseau believed that a government can only be legitimate if it has been sanctioned by the sovereignty of the people.
    Considering that 80% of our current laws are dictated by Brussels that sovereignty has been largely lost.
    Now you infer that we don’t want our MPs being dictated to by the people, but rather they should be leading us (by example, perhaps?). But that’s not how Rousseau saw it. He claimed that a perfect society would be controlled by the “general will” of its populace. Without this input from the people, there can be no legitimate government. Importantly, this input cannot come from representatives (i.e. MPs), but must be from the people themselves.
    The heart of the idea of the social contract may be stated simply: Each of us places his person under the supreme direction of the general will, and the group receives each individual as an indivisible part of the whole.
    Although most political thinkers consider The Social Contract as one of the foundation stones of democracy, it seems we have wandered a long way off of that path. You say that the people’s will is for hanging but the MPs are against it. Rousseau would say the will of the people must prevail. Opinion Polls say the people are against mass immigration; Parliament says it is powerless to stop it as it is part of the EU agreement. Rousseau must be turning in his grave.
    According to Thomas Hobbes (1651), human life would be “nasty, brutish, and short” without political authority. In its absence, we would each have unlimited natural freedoms, including the “right to all things” and thus the freedom to harm all who threaten our own self-preservation; there would be an endless “war of all against all”.To avoid this, free men establish a political community through a social contract in which each gains civil rights in return for subjecting himself to civil law or to political authority.
    Now step back and ask yourself are the civil rights of the British people being respected. Are they safe to walk the streets at night, are their homes free from break-in and burglary, are their rights to work respected, are their children being educated to the level needed in a competitive world, can they assume that their health care system is such that they won’t die in hospital while being treated, and since we are talking of a national parliament – are the frontiers of their land safe guarded by a competent defence force?
    The answers to each of these questions will give you the reasons why the British Parliament has lost the respect and trust of the public whose best interests they are meant to protect.

  8. Helen @ ClarkeMulderPurdie says:

    Thanks for the comment on our blog – it looks like trust and respect are the big issues at stake for MPs. Sadly the MPs that do manage to do a good job rarely make it into the headlines, so I wonder if their achievements need PR?